The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 led to the creation of much greater democratic space in many areas of society. Labour unions were among the groups that immediately benefited from the less repressive approach. Workers quickly took advantage of their newly-recognised right to organise, and by 2005 there were 86 union peak bodies registered with the Department of Manpower, as well as tens of thousands of local and industrial unions. Not all these new unions are effective in the struggle for workers’ rights, but their presence has certainly created a more dynamic labour movement.
One side effect of the proliferation of new unions is inter-union conflict. There is conflict over leadership, ideology and strategy between unions from the Suharto era and the newly-formed unions, which are often more confrontational in their approach to employers. There is also conflict between the new unions themselves, especially when they are competing for members within the same workplace.
Workplace supremacy struggle
Inter-union conflict can happen at any level. But in practice, open conflict at the national level is rare, because national leaders are more willing to compromise. Conflict is more obvious at the workplace where leaders are required to deal with rival unions face to face.
Grassroots union rivalries have exploded because of dramatic changes to union registration requirements made in 2001. Under the new law, as few as ten workers can form a union and multiple unions can operate in a single workplace. Now it’s really common to have two — or even more — unions fighting for influence on the factory floor.
Some of the most intractable disputes have arisen from splits in a larger union. For example, after Muchtar Pakpahan’s Prosperous Workers Union (SBSI) split into two factions a dispute arose over use of the union’s name. Leaders of one faction were prevented legally from representing workers involved in a labour dispute after the rival faction successfully claimed the sole right to use the name SBSI.
Often, though, totally new rival unions form when workers become disgruntled with an existing union. This was the situation at PT Panarub, a shoe manufacturer in Tangerang, west of Jakarta. As the Panarub case shows, sometimes rival unions can manage their conflict, but sometimes they just can’t.
Panarub: a case in point
PT Panarub has been producing shoes in Tangerang since 1968. It now employs more than 10,000 workers. There was no union at the Panarub factory until 1991, when a branch of the SPSI (the government-controlled All-Indonesian Employees Union) was established. A rival union called Perbupas (Union of Shoe Workers) was formed after the fall of Suharto, when a group of Panarub workers took advantage of their newfound freedom to organise. A year later the original SPSI union branch left SPSI and joined a new national union that focused on organising textile, clothing and leather workers. This new union, which had emerged from a split at the national level in the old government-sponsored SPSI, eventually adopted the name SPN (National Union of Workers).
The two rival unions have maintained an uneasy co-existence for more than three years. But they have experienced conflict over major differences of opinion about strategy and tactics. The SPN branch preferred to negotiate with management, only resorting to industrial action if negotiations failed. In contrast Perbupas used workers’ demonstrations from the earliest opportunity to pressure management to negotiate for more favourable terms.
Another area of conflict between the two unions has been over membership recruitment and money. They eventually made an agreement that served to regulate their competition for members. The agreement stipulated that members who wished to resign from one union and join the other must formally resign from their original union and relinquish their membership card. The original union would then advise the company to stop deducting membership fees from that employee’s wages. Only then could the other union apply to the company for dues to be deducted.
Then, in 2005, their uneasy truce broke down. The SPN branch suddenly found it had stopped receiving membership fees from almost 400 members. They discovered that Perbupas, the rival union, had persuaded these SPN members to change their union affiliation, and made arrangements with the company to pay their union fees to Perbupas. In doing so Perbupas had directly violated the agreement between the two unions.
The conflict eventually reached a point where the company had to intervene. It called on the Tangerang Office of Labour, which it asked to act as mediator in discussions between the unions. The mediation resulted in an independent process to verify the wishes of the 400 members involved. This showed that 63 per cent wished to change their union affiliation to Perbupas, one per cent preferred their original union SPN, and the remainder did not want to be involved. Both unions agreed to accept this result.
These immediate differences over membership were resolved through mediation by government officials. But the more fundamental conflict between the unions over strategy remained. In fact the dispute over membership only served to heighten their antagonism over their different styles and strategies. They both continue to claim sole responsibility for any victories achieved by worker activists at Panarub. Neither will acknowledge that the other union may have played a role. And they both fervently believe that there is only one effective strategy, and that is theirs.
Laws and regulations — or even mediation by independent parties — will not overcome the fundamentally different outlook of Perbupas and SPN. It remains to be seen what side the 10,000 workers at Panarub will take. Ultimately, only the allegiance of those workers can determine which view prevails.
Is conflict a problem?
According to some unionists, inter-union conflict could easily be overcome if all parties prioritised the interests of the workers concerned, rather than the interests of the individual unions or their leaders. But the answer doesn’t lie in such an idealistic view. As one union leader, Emilia Yanti, noted, conflict between unions is a natural part of a dynamic union movement. The question is, then, how to manage it.
At the moment, rival unions like those at Panarub tend to rely on laws and external institutions to resolve their differences. Many union leaders now recognise that external bodies can only go so far. As Emilia argues, inter-union conflict is better resolved informally without recourse to laws or court procedures. Union leaders should be able to develop mechanisms for conflict resolution within the union movement itself.
Informal mechanisms of conflict resolution within the union movement would also allow unions to gain more organisational knowledge and experience. By working together to develop conflict resolution mechanisms, rival unions could create possibilities for enhanced long term understanding. This, in turn, would foster a healthy dynamic which would help unions deal with the increasingly complex problems faced by workers.
Endang Rokhan(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a long-time labour activist who is currently completing a master’s degree on trade union conflict.